Sunday, February 6, 2011

Being a Light in the Darkness on the Edge of Town.

I've spent this past week at a temporary teaching job. I'll be a "Long-Term" sub for a month or so. The school shall remain nameless, but suffice it to say that it's students are considered to be some of the most difficult in the Minneapolis system...and it's only a Middle School.

I'm working with kids from grade 5 to 8. Apparently, most of them have been tossed out of the regular public schools for various behavioral problems. But a few of them are there because their parent is essentially homeless, with no fixed and stable address. (I say "Parent," not "ParentS" because for the majority, there is no "Dad" around.)

Needless to say, it's been an interesting week.

I've enjoyed myself so far, primarily because it's been an amazing learning experience. The kids are a handful, but I really do like most of them. Some of them are down right sweet. However, the majority of them seem to have a problem with this elusive thing called "Self-Control."

The fact of the matter is that there is a lot of hopelessness in this situation. It doesn't take a genius to see that a very unstable home with no father figure about, poverty, a self-destructive neighborhood environment, a lack of value in the importance of education, and a culture of immediate self-gratification adds up to a ball and chain tied around each leg of a kid.

One of the first things I noticed was that each kid seems to only have the concept of "Self." There is no concept that anyone else is around, and that your actions might have an impact on them.

Think of it like this: I'm standing in an open space. I'm twirling around while I swing my arms. I can do this because I am the only person there. All of a sudden, my arm swinging makes contact with the face of another person's nose. How do I react? Well, I'm offended of course. I mean, what are they doing in the way of my arm swinging?

Now, if they happen to be doing the same thing and hit me in the nose, I'm also offended. I mean, don't they see me here? What are they doing swinging their arms in my space? I'm the one that matters. Don't they get that?!?!?!

I've worked with many, many "At-Risk" students. I've seen the various paths that they can take. Many of them continue down a path that will not end well. (I think that at least 7 of my former students are now teen moms. All most everyone of them is completely stunned that the "Dad" ditched out on them. "But, but...he told me that he loved me!?!?!" SURPRISE!!!!!) Many of them continue to struggle with drugs & booze. Many continue on the path that their parent's foolishly took. I wont lie. It is very sad to watch, and often extremely painful to think about. However, for the most part, the kids that I worked with previously turned out fantastic.

An Aside: I honestly do not know if I am a good teacher or not. I would like to be. But I must honestly say that any successes that any previous student of mine has is simply because they really & truly had that ability all along. One thing that I AM honestly good at is in reading people. Give me some time and I can probably tell you your life story just based on the way I watch you behave. (Call me "The Mentalist.") At any rate, I purposely look for a persons' gifts, talents and abilities...students in particular. Then I spend A LOT of time pointing that out to that student. I may point it out to a kid, but they are the ones that have to decide to use it or not. So the victory really belongs to them.

However, in the instance of this particular school, everyone who works there told me bluntly that the odds are deeply stacked against these kids. In all honesty, the majority of them are not going to have a happy ending. The darkness is virtually overwhelming...and you can actually SEE the darkness.

So...why waste your time?

Yesterday, at my other job, I was talking with another worker about the school. He said that people "Like That" should just be tossed out if they don't want to learn. If they survive, great. If they don't, too bad. That sounds harsh, but to be honest, I often feel like that. Odds are that we all do at times. Just let Social Darwinism do it's thing and cull the herd. (Kind of a Libertarian perspective on the situation.)

Conservatives will talk about the importance of personal responsibility in situations like this. They are correct. But how can a person behave responsibly if something like that has never been modeled for them?

Liberals will talk about the importance of governmental/social intervention. (Get another program going to help "Them" at tax-payer expense.) They are also correct. The government needs to act in these circumstances if it wants productive members of society. But you can throw all the money at someone you want, and if they refuse to accept the help, what can you do?

People talk a lot. Everyone has ideas. More often than not, they are rather simplistic solutions to a very, very complex problem that has been reduced to a mere talking point. I have learned that in situations like this one, there are actually very few answers to be had. From a human perspective, the options are poor at best. And even with some decent answers, the odds are still stacked against you.

So...why waste your time?

When you walk into circumstances like this with your eyes & heart open, you get to see first hand the broken, fallen, sinful nature of humanity in all of it's hideous & depressing glory. You get to see the results of mankind's willful rebellion against God. Genesis 3 is a live & well. We still want to be God. The result is homeless, dysfunctional, self-destructive people with children teetering on the edge. The result is Darkness!

So...why waste your time?

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all thing were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was LIFE, and that life was the light of men. The LIGHT SHINES IN THE DARKNESS, but the darkness has not understood it." John 1:1-5

Or a slightly better translation, thanks to Eugene my biased opinion.

"The Life-Light BLAZED out of the darkness; the darkness couldn't put it out...The Word became flesh & blood and moved into our neighborhood."

There are two men who work at that school who I know are Believers. One I am getting to know very well. He refers to the school as "Church." He feels that even though this is a secular setting, his being there for those students is a form of ministry. He is not overt about it, but he does feel that this is his calling from God.

The other man I do not know so well...yet. I don't know his real name. He introduced himself to me as "Mr. Apostle"... with a last name I can't pronounce. I would guess that he is a part of one of those store-front Pentecostal churches that are common in Black neighborhoods. He has a type of school ministry there that is probably completely un-constitutional. (Mixing "Religion" with a pubic school setting.) However, for better or worse, the "Church" is a huge part of the African-American experience. So I don't think the ACLU would touch him for fear of the "Race" card being played against them. (Kind of a nice role reversal for a change.)

Both of these men can see the overwhelming darkness around them. They aren't stupid. They know the odds. Yet, from what I have been able to see, both of them have decided that the odds are not important. The kingdom IS!

I think to come to that conclusion requires a faith & understanding that I am still developing. When you see God's kingdom breaking into this fallen world, it is beyond beautiful. Against all odds, God will do what he pleases. His kingdom WILL come. These men know that their task is NOT to save anyone or change the world. Their task is simply to be faithful sign posts OF the kingdom. God will use them as he sees fit...even in very dark places with everything standing in the way.

"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." Matt. 5:13-16

To follow Jesus into his kingdom means to be a light in a very dark world. It is not for us to save anyone. It is not for us to conquer the world in Jesus name. Jesus doesn't need our help. (If he needed my help, he would be in big, big trouble.) All Jesus asks is that we be faithful to what he is already be a sign post for his kingdom. Why, because the kingdom IS!

Often times, "Christians" are guilted into doing things for God. I think that guilt is a terrible motivator. Other times, "Christians" do things because they want to be make a difference for the kingdom and be "Great" men & women for God. I think that the heart may be in the right place in these circumstances, but the deeper motivation may very well be misplaced.

Maybe it's just easier if I let this brief video explain what I am trying to say. (I would highly, highly, highly recommend this book.)

God doesn't need us to fix this mess. He is bringing his kingdom all on his own. Our only choice is to come along for the ride or sit on the sidelines. To be a light in dark places, or hide that light under a bowl. To be salt, or to lose our flavor.

The two men that I have watched this week can see God's kingdom crashing into that school. I am beginning to see it too, and I believe that this is why God lead me there for this short period of time. He wants me to see what a radical faith & trust really looks like.

There is much darkness in that neighborhood and that school. There is not a great deal of hope to be seen. But there IS some to be found, never the less. I am seeing that when there is love...the love of & for Jesus, then there is always hope. "There is no fear in love. But perfect love casts out fear." (1 Jn. 4:18)

Against all odds, there are people out there who will & do walk willingly into the darkness to be a candle. I have a burning urge to watch & learn from those two men at the school, because they teach me about the power, hope & glory of the kingdom. They are not afraid. They have a hope that is firmly fixed on Christ. They have embraced that mess, and it is beautiful.

They make me want to be a more faithful candle.

"The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness,
and the darkness could not put it out"
(John 1:5)



P.S. Yeah, might as well include an appropriate video. Enjoy. :)

Actually, on the way home from worship today I heard another song on the radio that I thought fit rather well with this subject. (Good thing I waited to post until I did one final edit.)

Made me remember a great "B" movie from when I was a kid. If you haven't seen the cheesy gangland movie "The Warriors," go out and treat yourself.


  1. Some would consider comparing yourself with the great Simon Baker a form of blasphemy. I'll let it slide this time.

    In my opinion, there is a secular/sacred split for the believer. Rob Bell has a GREAT video called "Everything Is Spiritual." I think you'd like it.

    Very good insights, as usual.
    I too, am very fond of Peterson's paraphrase.

    So many good thoughts in your article, but one of my favorites is:

    "People talk a lot. Everyone has ideas. More often than not, they are rather simplistic solutions to a very, very complex problem that has been reduced to a mere talking point."

    People are always SURE of their theories; especially if they can back them up by quoting scripture. Those theories often crumble beneath the weight of the real world.

    Again, thanks for sharing with us.

  2. Human theories are easy to come up with. The actual solutions are a lot more complicated. But in the end, the only lasting answer is Jesus. And Jesus tends to strip us of our man-made, empty answers. He is the only one who can make an actual difference that matters. That's why he often lets us fall on our face and feel despair. That's the moment that he can step in and do the impossible and leave us standing in awe...or "Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!"